There is no question that we are living in a troubled and sin infested world. All one has to do is look at some of the many horrible things happening in the world around us. Refugees are suffering from ongoing fighting in the Middle East and lack food and the basic necessities of life. They are suffering from injustice and oppression because of their beliefs or political views. The ongoing threat of terrorism makes us all unsettled. There are times within our own lives where we feel the effects of sin in our lives very acutely. Sickness, disease, death, financial problems, relationship difficulties can easily overwhelm us. It is at such times that we need to remind ourselves of the teaching of God’s providence. Today we are reminded that not only that God provides for His people but that He is also lovingly in control of all things. Let’s read Paul’s description of providence in Acts 17:16-34.
At this point in Paul’s second missionary journey, he is in Athens. The first thing we notice is that Paul was greatly distressed at the number of idols. The beauty of temples filled with beautiful statues made no difference to Paul. While in the marketplace, he encountered two main groups of teachers in Athens. The Epicurean philosophers believed that man’s pleasure was life’s main purpose. This was not sensual pleasure, but tranquility and freedom from pain and fears. They didn’t deny the existence of gods, but gods were simply not interested in people. As a result, they attacked beliefs in gods. The Stoic philosophers believed in a type of union of man with all natural things. Their sense of god was that the whole world contains the soul of god. They too scorned idols of material things and superstitions, temples and worship.
Now these sophisticated philosophers saw Paul as a babbler as we see in verse 18. A babbler is one who picks up bits and pieces of things and tries to put them together. It would be as if I tried to speak like a computer programmer or an engineer. “I think that this diode here needs to interface with this feedback platform.” It is obvious that I haven’t the slightest clue as to what I’m talking about. They accused Paul of trying to impersonate a philosopher. Actually all he was doing was talking about Jesus and the resurrection. But these terms were unfamiliar to them so they accused him of babbling. So they took him to the Aeropause, the court for evaluating religious and moral issues.
These philosophies may sound distant to us, but they are more prevalent than we realize. Many today are skeptical of organized religion and churches. Author Russell Baker writes about the day he learned his father died. He was 5 years old and he was playing in the woods. He believed his father would come home from the hospital soon. His cousins came out to where he was and told him that his father had died. He was sent to his friend's house to wait. He writes, "That afternoon, I couldn't have phrased it this way then, but I decided that God was a lot less interested in people than anybody in Morrisville was willing to admit. That day I decided God was not entirely to be trusted." At age 5 he had become a skeptic and began to sense that any happiness that might come his way might be the prelude to some grim cosmic joke. There are more and more people who are skeptical of God and so it is important that we learn from Paul who God is and what God does in this world.
II. Let’s look at Paul’s description of providence in verses 22-31. First Paul lays down some important groundwork in verses 22-23. He comments that the people of Athens seem to be very religious, which is quite ambiguous. It is like saying, “Well, you people certainly all look very well fed!” That could mean they are healthy or overweight! Paul is talking about the idol worship that these educated men would look down upon. Moreover, Paul says that he saw an idol dedicated to an unknown god. They were always open to new ideas and so Paul says he will explain who this GOD is. Eager to learn, these people would be anxious to hear what Paul had to say. Paul is going to tell them about the doctrine of providence. But he uses phrases that his philosophical listeners would likely agree with.
Notice how he does this in verses 24 and following. He begins by saying that the God who created the world and everything in it is the LORD, the continual ruler of all right now and so doesn’t need temples and shrines. Plato had said that god cannot be worshiped in temples. God is alive and not confined to buildings. Paul has their agreement in this. And because God is alive, active and Lord, he doesn’t need man at all in order to exist. In fact, he gives life, breath and everything else to man. His listeners also believed that a god was the source of all life and things. Moreover, God also created man and from one man all nations. God determines the rise and fall of nations and where each people should live. His listeners would certainly accept a god planning this out as well in the very beginning. Then, Paul says that God did this so that there would be something in creation that would cause man to seek after God. Man is groping in the darkness looking for the truth that is there but elusive. This search for the truth was very appealing to the philosophers.
Paul then uses two quotations from the philosophers to enhance his position. “In him, we live, move and have our being” and “we are his offspring.” Suddenly this “babbler” makes a lot of sense and they likely were agreeing with him. Moreover, since we are God’s offspring, God cannot be a stone or metal. We are not idols, but human beings with spirits and souls and we are like God. The philosophers would agree with as well for they ridiculed idol worship. Now Paul reveals his hand completely in verses 30-31. God used to overlook this limited knowledge, but now all must repent of this attitude. God the Creator and Sustainer now is also the Judge who will judge man through the man he has chosen, who is Jesus Christ. And the proof that Jesus is the one to judge is that he rose from the dead. Paul is confronting these people’s spiritual ignorance and arrogance.
Now what is Paul saying about God’s providence? God created the world and God continues to keep the world going to this day. If he was to withhold his care, the world would fall. He continues to give life, breath and everything to us and everything around us. God is more than just a caretaker; He is also involved in every part and event in the world which will soon face his judgment through the Son of God.
And so the Catechism says that God uses this power to “uphold, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures.” This is not some deistic notion where God creates the world and tosses it out into space. Instead God is using his power to sustain and preserve the world He created. Finally, God uses his power to rule over the world. The Catechism says that God “ so rules the earth and its creatures that “leaf and blade, rain and droughts, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty – all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.” God is not one who watches over the world for someone else; God is the ruler!
So what is providence? It is God’s active and present power which He uses to actively maintain and rule the world he has created. Providence means no matter what happens, God is involved and is lovingly in control.
IV. Finally then how does providence help us?
The Catechism gives us three ways. We can be patient when things go against us. Patience means we can be comforted by the fact that God is actually in complete control of all situations even if they are difficult for us. Patience means that we know we are not at the mercy of some mysterious fate. Rather we are in the hands of our loving Father who rules over all creation. And so when problems weigh us down or when the world seems out of control .... we know that while these things are the result of man’s sinfulness; they are still under God’s control. Patience also means that we have faith in our loving God and Father. Sometimes we can’t begin to imagine why certain things happen, but God is in control and we must trust our heavenly Father that all things are working out to His glory. God is working things out to his specific purpose.
Secondly, the teaching of providence also enables us to be thankful when things go well. We are truly blessed to have the abundance we have in material goods. We must be certain to acknowledge God as the source of all that we have. And to specifically thank him for all these things. We must also show our gratitude by using these many gifts to further God’s kingdom.
Finally, the Catechism says that providence helps us so that “for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from His love.” We cannot fall from God’s love and favor. Romans 8:38-39 says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If God has claimed you in Christ as his own, then nothing at all will separate you from God’s love in Jesus Christ.